Black humor generally walks a tightrope between funny and disturbing. In “Down Low,” the new comedy directed by Rightor Doyle and co-written by Phoebe Fisher and out gay actor Lukas Gage, who costars, is a black comedy that is disturbing because it is painfully unfunny.
The film has a promising set up — and not just because it opens with a happy ending. Kory (Gage) a masseur, is servicing Gary (Zachary Quinto), a middle-aged gay man. Their encounter is awkward because Kory does not appreciate the classical music Gary has on, and Gary does not appreciate Kory’s musical selection or that he is chewing gum. But the men bond once Kory learns that he is the first guy Gary has ever been intimate with. Gary discloses this as well as a few other uncomfortable truths to Cameron — as Kory is actually named — including his failed marriage to Patty (Audra McDonald), the fact that he does not talk to his two sons, and that he has an inoperable brain tumor.
That last detail convinces Cameron to teach Gary how to live it up. Cameron immediately goes on an app to get Sammy (Sebastian Arroyo) to come over for sex. (So much for letting Gary bask in the afterglow of his first same-sex orgasm.) Unfortunately, Sammy accidentally ends up dead. Now Gary and Cameron must figure out what to do with the body.
“Down Low,” however, becomes more strained than clever as the action unfolds. The film tries to be farcical when Cameron tries to distract Gary’s visiting neighbor, Sandy (Judith Light), while Gary hides Sammy’s corpse. The physical humor is more forced than Gary shoving Sammy in his hall closet. Additional scenes of Gary trying to pass off his blood-drenched shirt as having spilled a pitcher of cosmopolitans is dumb, as are the numerous “Sex and the City” references. (Fisher and Gage’s script is larded with pop culture references from “Pretty Woman” to “Beaches” to reinforce the fact that these characters are, indeed, gay.) Moreover, the wordplay is lame. A running “joke” where Gary calls Cameron a “jezebel,” and Cameron doesn’t get the reference, does not get any funnier the more it is repeated.
The film’s tonal shifts are too much. A montage sequence has Cameron giving Gary a makeover. The guys are both seen trying various outfits, including a wedding dress and veil, before the big reveal where Gary changes his white shirt to — spoiler alert — blue. There is a musical sequence late in the film which has some energy, but “Down Low” is never much fun. The screenplay also wedges a love story between Gary and Cameron that is unconvincing. Viewers need a reason to care about the characters and want them to be together. Cameron is so exasperating that viewers might want him to just go away, and Gary is colorless (save the blue shirt). This is a case where opposites repel.
There is a brief bit of relief, both comedic and dramatic, when Cameron finds Fleshpuppet, aka Buck (Simon Rex), on the dark web. Buck is willing to take Sammy’s corpse because he is a necrophiliac. Rex injects some life into the film with his giddy performance, which includes smoking crack — the guys join him, of course. Rex is wonderfully unapologetic as Buck because his character lacks morals. Cameron aims for a similar extreme with his unfiltered remarks, but his vulgarity, which is meant to be outrageous, is, well, not very. It is more shocking that Cameron cannot get over how buttoned-down Gary is.
Quinto, playing the, ahem, straight man, here, generates a few smiles with his reaction shots, and the film does achieve a moment of poignancy when Gary ends a speech about being a “good” guy by saying, “At least it’s some relief knowing there are people out there being worse than us in the world.” That sentence is as awkwardly constructed as the film, which tries so hard to be scandalous. Watching Rex shove Gary’s fragile bejeweled egg down his pants to steal it is not amusing as it may appear to be. And even when Sandy makes a double entendre about church girls knowing how to kneel, it generates an eyeroll, not a laugh.
“Down Low” almost always goes for the lowest common denominator, and, more often than not, it rarely rouses a chuckle. Gary asks Cameron not to smoke. Cameron clarifies that he isn’t smoking; he is vaping weed. Gary then asks for the weed. Ha. A sight gag of a body being run over, twice. Ha, ha. The jabs at abusing corpses are more desperate than depraved.
The laughs should increase as the bodies pile up, but “Down Low” buries the jokes. They should have buried the script. This comedy strives for deadpan humor, but it is just dead on arrival.
“Down Low” | Directed by Rightor Doyle | Available October 10 on demand. Distributed by Sony Pictures